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The Prince who didn’t want to be King

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“I don’t want to be King. I want to consecrate my life to culture, to choreography, to film. The throne does not interest me, I have never wanted to be King … if I were asked, I would say no,” said then-Prince Norodom Sihamoni to journalist Denise Heywood, in the spring of 1995.

Fast forward to 2004 when Prince Sihamoni was chosen by the Royal Council of the Throne of Cambodia to succeed the King Norodom Sihanouk, who had abdicated on October 7, 2004.

One week later, the Prince who didn’t want to be King was crowned as King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia.

Today, the kingdom is celebrating the 13th anniversary of King Sihamoni’s coronation. Whereas the late King Sihanouk was deeply entrenched in the political struggle of Cambodia, King Sihamoni has always had his sights set on something else – arts and culture. The development of the arts is a particular area of interest for the King, who had spent most of his life outside of Cambodia. His childhood was spent in then-Czechoslovakia, where he studied classical music and dance at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Shortly upon graduating in 1975, Prince Sihamoni briefly moved to North Korea to study filmmaking before returning to his war torn motherland in 1977 – only to be placed under house arrest until 1979. In 1982, Prince Sihamoni decided to move to Paris and become a ballet instructor, where he stayed for almost two decades. This is when his desire to stay out of politics first became truly apparent – he refused an appointment as Cambodia’s ambassador to France. But in 1993, he was appointed as Cambodia’s Ambassador to Unesco for his work and dedication to the preservation of Khmer arts and culture – whose masters had almost been completely wiped out after Year Zero, and then left to decay as the entire nation subsequently focused its energy on rebuilding the kingdom.

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The King loves art and understands the importance of the preservation of Khmer culture as a part of Cambodian identity. To him, culture is the soul of a nation. However, as paramount as preserving tradition is, to him, moving forward is just as important. He was one of the first public figures who advocated for the modernisation of the traditional Khmer court dances – by pushing for more male involvement in this female-dominated art form, as well as the addition of more dynamic movement and non-traditional gestures in Apsara dances to convey freedom of movement.

While these pushes may not be seen as comparable to the hard-powered, political activism of his predecessor, others may argue that this is a soft-power approach to exacting change in society through discursive means. So 13 years after he was crowned King, the question that needs to be answered is – has Khmer arts flourished and evolved as its patron intended it to?

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In Phnom Penh’s Russian market area, Teang Borin, or Din, as he is known among his peers, was getting ready for his exhibition. The object of Din’s paintings are apsara dancers, but not unlike King Sihamoni’s apsara dancers, these court dancers are not depicted in their “traditional” environ – no garish sunsets, neither was there any rice fields nor temples.

“I love Khmer art – but I wanted to attack it with a different approach,” said Din. “When I first started, everybody was doing the same thing that they have been doing for years – kitschy paintings of dancers, temples and what not – obviously aimed at tourists.”

Din’s paintings are set on a blank monochromatic canvas and these celestial nymphs seem to leap out of the background – their sampot sarabap gracefully “dissolves” into a collage of coloured cubes that blends into the canvas. What it is, is a blend

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of the old and the new – a fitting metaphor for a country where modern edifices exist side-by-side with the old, as well as what King Sihamoni had said he longed for – a touch of modernity to art forms that has its roots in ancient history.

“Since I began doing my work in 2005, I could already see that there are a lot of emerging talents that experimented with

different mediums to explore the many facets and form of Khmer arts and culture,” he said. “But I still wish that more younger generation Cambodians are more aware of the importance of preserving our culture, as it is a part of our identity.”

The Executive Director of Cambodian Living Arts, Prim Phloeun, agrees that there is definitely room for improvement, but argues that things are beginning to move on the right track. “Younger generations are starting to become more aware of the need to preserve traditional art forms,” said Phloeun.

Indeed, quantum leaps are being made in the preservation front – in 2016, the chapey was declared by Unesco as a part of Cambodia’s intangible heritage, after having been rejected twice by the UN body. “It is really interesting to see these art forms have not only managed to survive, but it is actually thriving among artists who are taking these traditions forward with them,” said Phloeun. However, Phloeun also said that culture is never static and that it evolves to reflect the realities of life – no matter how unsightly the reality might be. “In many societies, contemporary forms of art are really just expressions of the societal context behind it,” he said. “Cambodian artists know that their King is an artist himself, so he has always played an inspirational role,” added Phloeun. “I’m sure all these artists want to have more access to him, and I’m sure His Majesty would love to do the same – but he is bound by his obligations as the King.”

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Phloeun was one of the lucky ones as he had been invited for an audience with King Sihamoni in 2015, along with critically acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. “Although I’ve met him several times, it always feels a bit nerve wracking because we are artists – we are not foreign dignitaries, nor are we heads of states,” laughed Phloeun. Whilst they erred on the side of caution when it comes to politics, he said that the conversation immediately took on a different tone when the topic shifted to the arts. “It was a reciprocal moment of appreciation, we could see his expression immediately changed – it was as if he suddenly came to life,” recalled Phloeun.  He recounted a particularly special moment for him, when King Sihamoni thanked them for their time and shared his past artistic pursues. “He told us he was an artist, and that his passion lies with the arts – it was very clear at that moment that His Majesty understood, truly understood, us, as an artist,” said Phloeun.  He said King Sihamoni’s role is as the vanguard of Khmer culture.

“He is already an inspiration for Cambodian artists, but I would love to see him formally appointed as the ambassador for Cambodian culture – if there is such a thing!” joked Phloeun. “That way, he can inspire more Cambodians to preserve his passion, our identity, through art.” 

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